Should Britain be run by Tesco?

The company's record ain't great

Congratulations to Alex Brummer, who won two prizes at this week's inaugural Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He picked up a gong for financial column of the year and also bagged a second prize for best magazine commentator, for his work in the New Statesman.

But I have to disagree with the great man about his column in today's Daily Mail, headlined: "What if Tesco ran the country?"

Let's be honest. We all love Tesco. OK, let me rephrase that. Even those of us who care about low pay, workers' rights and corporate social responsibility and who normally take a rather dim view of big business often end up making the confession that I am about to make: I spend about two or three nights a week shopping at my local Tesco superstore. I can't help it -- Tesco makes life so convenient.

But I have to draw the line at running Britain along the lines of Sir Terry Leahy's multibillion-pound corporate behemoth. Here's something to give you a flavour of Alex's column:

How different Britain might have been had Gordon Brown got his way and managed to persuade Sir Terry Leahy, the quiet man who leads Tesco, to run the National Health Service.

But if Leahy, who is married to a GP, had agreed to take on this mammoth task, he would never have made the botch of a job that New Labour has achieved . . .

In so many other areas, a country run according to Tesco principles would have meant a dramatic improvement in the population's living standards . . .

There are so many other areas where Britain could have benefited from the Tesco touch . . .

Allowing mistakes to drag would be anathema in Tescoland.

Hold on! As I said, I'm as big a fan of Tesco as the next man when it comes to a convenient and cheap weekly shop . . . but running the country? It would be AWFUL. Alex makes no reference to the various critiques of Tesco made in recent years by the green, sustainable and trade union movements.

He makes no mention, for example, of the Competition Commission's recommendation, early this month, that the government "take the necessary steps to introduce a competition test in planning decisions on larger grocery stores". The CC's proposal, writes Alex Renton, "acknowledges that 'Tesco towns' like Swansea, Truro and Inverness -- where £3 in every £4 is spent with the retailer -- are a bad thing". (By the way, Renton also writes that "if you do shop at Tesco, by the way, bear in mind that the store has a 30 per cent share of British grocery retail and has been doing gloriously out of you through the recession, with sales up yet again in the first six months of the year, and pre-tax profits now just under £1.5bn for the period".)

In his Mail column, extolling the virtues of a hypothetical Tesco-led Britain, Brummer also fails to mention any the numerous local campaigns against the firm's expansion plans across the country. Nor does he mention a story reported in his own paper, in August, about how Tesco used "bogus" statistics to try to convince the residents of Manningtree to back "its efforts to expand its supermarket empire":

Britain's biggest retailer sent leaflets to residents in an Essex town claiming its own research demonstrated there was a "need and demand" for a new supermarket.

However, the telephone poll used as the basis of the claim showed that just 38 out of the 440 people surveyed wanted a new supermarket -- 8.6 per cent.

While even fewer people, just 20, said they would like to see a new Tesco.

Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemns the leaflet as misleading and has ordered the supermarket not to send it out again.

But perhaps most importantly, if Brummer is right, and Leahy would do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, how does he explain this letter from Barack Obama, of June 2008? The then presidential candidate and junior senator from Illinois took time out from his campaign to write to Sir Terry, complaining about the firm's lack of engagement with "community stakeholders" in the United States and lending his support to a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, which Tesco's American operation, Fresh & Easy, had refused to meet with, let alone recognise. "I strongly request that you revisit that decision," wrote Obama, warning that workplace rights would have a prominent place on his presidential policy platform. "I again urge you to reconsider your policy of non-engagement in the United States."

If you think Brown had problems with Obama, how do you imagine a Tesco-led Foreign Office would handle the "special relationship"?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred